By Tynan Stewart
JEFFERSON CITY — Prisoners in Missouri with mental health issues are caught in a vicious cycle.
That’s according to Steve Allen, a policy advisor for The Council of State Governments Justice Center.
Allen said Missouri’s criminal justice system focuses mainly on mental health treatments that are provided to people behind bars. This trend is especially prominent among female prisoners: 45 percent of women who were put in prison in fiscal year 2016 were sentenced to prison for the purpose of treatment, according to Missouri Department of Corrections data.
But there’s a lack of support outside the prison, Allen said. This leads to people failing supervised probation and going back to prison.
This data was presented to the Missouri State Justice Reinvestment Task Force Wednesday afternoon. The task force was created by Gov. Eric Greitens to provide policy recommendations for reducing violent crime, incarceration and recidivism rates in Missouri.
Since July, the task force has been working with The Council of State Governments Justice Center, a nonpartisan organization that advises state governments on public policy.
Wednesday’s meeting was the last of five such sessions. After hearing Allen’s report on the behavioral health of prisoners, the task force reviewed policy recommendations from the Justice Center based on their past five months of research. They then voted to pass along all the policies to the governor as written.
Policy highlights include:
- Creating a grant program to fund specific, evidence-based policing programs at a local level
- Creating statutory guidelines on the handling of sexual assault evidence “kits”
- Making it easier for crime victims to receive compensation and support
- Improving access to community-based behavioral health care for recently released prisoners
- Streamlining the parole assessment process
- Developing parole guidelines that account for key factors that determine whether an individual is ready to re-enter society
- Upgrade the Missouri Department of Corrections’ IT systems
- According to the Justice Center’s data, Missouri’s incarceration rate has increased in recent years and is well over the national average. Between 2010 and 2015, Missouri’s incarceration rate increased by 4 percent and was the eighth highest in the nation in 2015.
Andy Barbee, director of research for the Justice Center, called this an “unsustainable trajectory for Missouri.”
“If nothing else changes about the way you do business, this is the prison overcrowding crunch that the state is going to be looking at,” he said.
Barbee described the other options for dealing with this prison population boom, apart from their policy suggestions.
One was to spend money on new prisons. Barbee estimated that it would cost $350 million to build two prisons and $54 million dollars a year to operate them. He also said there may be some truth to the objection that Missouri won’t want to pay for that.
An alternative to that was what his home state of Texas did, Barbee said. To avoid building new prisons, “they kept taking reactionary, short-sighted actions to dump people out of the prisons as fast as they could,” he said.
Missouri tried to reduce its prison and parole populations back in 2011, according to the Justice Center. While the number of people on parole has decreased by 20 percent since 2010, Missouri’s prison population has continued to increase.